ORLANDO, Fla. — Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez tracked down sophomore Rennie Curran shortly after the Bulldogs had returned from a trip to Disney World on Saturday.
It was the first of a series of getaways for the team arranged as part of the week’s festivities leading up to Thursday’s Capital One Bowl, and Martinez wanted to know if Curran had enjoyed himself at the theme park.
“I had a good time except for a couple of things,” the undersized linebacker told his coach.
His curiosity piqued, Martinez pressed Curran for details.
“Well,” Curran said, the braces on his teeth criss-crossing a broad smile, “I couldn’t ride a couple of the rides because I wasn’t tall enough.”
Recounting the story to reporters, Martinez worried he might embarrass his star linebacker, but it’s tough to get on Curran’s bad side. From his self-deprecating humor to his boundless enthusiasm and laid-back demeanor, Curran likes pretty much everyone he meets, and it’s nearly impossible not to like him.
“He is infectious,” Martinez said. “He’s loved by his teammates. He’s loved by his coaches. He’s got the whole package.”
While much of Curran’s personality comes naturally, there’s no shortage of hard work that has gone into becoming the SEC’s leading tackler and a first-team All-SEC player in his sophomore season. More than just his on-field success, however, Curran has established himself as one of the most respected voices in the locker room and someone that even the veteran players look up to.
The role of leader was something Curran wanted from the moment he arrived at Georgia. As a true freshman, however, he didn’t earn a starting job until midway through the season in 2007, and with a small stature and a soft-spoken personality, he didn’t exactly command attention in the locker room. His work ethic, however, was the envy of everyone he met.
“Most guys come in, they’re just cruising through the year,” senior linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. “But last year, he worked hard to learn everything, and now he goes 100 percent all the time.”
Now, Curran said, he’s a million miles from where his career began.
When he first walked into the locker room, an 18-year-old with no college experience, he was intimidated. Now, he’s the one his teammates look to for advice. The transition started with a conversation with another Georgia linebacker, Thomas Davis, now a starter for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“He pretty much told me you have to look at it as your defense,” Curran said. “Don’t just think, ‘Oh, it’s not my place to say anything.’ He’s like, ‘Just take it upon yourself and if you’re doing the right thing, the coaches are going to be behind you and those who want to do things right are going to be behind you, too.’ So that’s how I’ve always looked at it.”
Of course, being a leader requires a bit more than simply wanting the job.
For a sophomore to rally his team and earn the respect of players with two or three more years of experience, Curran knew he would need to show he was worthy both on and off the field.
Finding success as a player was simply a matter of getting the opportunity, and Curran’s coaches knew it wouldn’t take him long to establish himself as a star at linebacker. His energy and ability were obvious even in high school.
“He has a passion for the game of football,” Martinez said. “One of the things we saw in recruiting was the way he played. It wasn’t a highlight tape that we watched; it was game tapes.”
Against nearly any opponent, Curran expects to be the smaller player. It’s true, too, that he won’t win many foot races with a hard-charging tailback. His advantage, however, is that no one wants to make the play more than he does.
The results have been impressive. Curran’s 109 tackles are the most since Davis racked up 136 in 2003. His three sacks lead the team, and his voice — even-tempered and calm — now commands attention in the locker room.
“If you want to be a leader, I feel like you’ve got to be a playmaker,” Curran said. “You want to go to war with someone that you trust, that you know can get the job done, and I just try to put that on myself to be a guy that everybody can depend on … and just hold myself accountable for everything I do.”
It’s not just his play, however, that has endeared Curran to his teammates. It’s his personality.
The challenge for Curran this season has been to get all of his teammates on the same page. The defense, much to his chagrin, has struggled at times, and the criticisms have been hard for anyone — particularly Curran — to swallow.
When senior leaders Jeff Owens and Dannell Ellerbe were kept off the field because of injuries, Curran soon realized it was his turn to crack the whip with some of his underperforming teammates. It didn’t exactly fit with Curran’s typically positive attitude, but as a leader, he knew it was his job.
“I might yell just to try to pump the guys up and let them know that what we’re doing is important,” he said. “But I try not to do it too much because I know guys want to win just like I do, so I just try to hold my weight and make sure everybody holds theirs.”
Holding everyone else accountable starts with taking the same approach to his own game. Despite what most of his teammates say, Curran is quick to admit he makes mistakes, too.
“He can laugh at himself,” Martinez said. “When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t sit there and make excuses; he just owns up to them and asks ‘How can I do it better?’ ”
For all his success on the field, that might be what has drawn so many of his teammates to Curran this season. Anyone can give advice and demand effort, but Curran’s words are always genuine.
“He has a big heart,” Ellerbe said. “A great heart.”
At the core of that heart is his love for his teammates and a desire to see them succeed. Becoming a leader wasn’t something Curran did to steal the spotlight or endear himself to the coaches. He simply wanted to share what he could with the people around him.
“You don’t want to try to be like anybody’s dad or mom or anything,” Curran said. “I’ve always tried to keep that positive mind-set and just let the guys know that I wanted to win, I want to be competitive and I want to see them do good as well.”